Saturday, July 13, 2024

Amidst Stereotypes, Big Mouth Coughs Up Pansexuality

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Content warning: discussion of sexual harassment; Spoiler Warning for Big Mouth


Back in October, Netflix’s cartoon Big Mouth ignited controversy when Netflix posted a clip of its new character, Ali (voiced by Ali Wong). The character introduces herself as pansexual and dismisses bisexuality in the process, reducing it to a binary system that bi people have always rejected. Frustration over the show people’s creative decisions reverberated loudly through the Twitter-verse, leading co-creator Andrew Goldberg to apologize over social media. (Cue the infamous Notes app mea culpa).

Big Mouth is a raunchy coming-of-age cartoon about middle schoolers as they navigate puberty. The kids struggle with ‘hormone monsters’ that embody their latent desires, creatures who counsel and creatures who tempt. Though I had never seen Big Mouth, I decided to watch it as I had analyzed Carnival Row’s depiction of pansexuality. I watched all three episodes which included Ali, so I lacked a deep familiarity with the characters and situation, but Big Mouth’s superficiality allows for that.

Writers can make goofs and not think through implications, yet it’s hard to swallow that a show like Big Mouth, which markets itself as diving into the messiness of puberty and sexual development, would blunder so hard if it had a sincere interest in these issues. Like Carnival Row, it cites queer representation without doing the work required to depict sympathetic, complex characters and stories. Though I give creators the benefit of the doubt, Big Mouth’s joke style reveals a focus on shock value and belittlement over anything meaningful.

The show dresses itself in progressive themes and dialogue yet its gross, body-based humor undermines them, as the show mocks the very characters it claims to uplift. Although her sexuality is not explicitly comedic fodder, Ali’s pansexuality only tokenizes her for that episode before she slips into the background. Big Mouth sabotages Goldberg’s message of “try[ing] to define something as complex as human sexuality” as the show ignores the nuances of gender, class, and race that affect sexuality. And when these nuances are ignored, they compound the real-life issues related to stereotyping multisexualities.

Things that I liked:

In the interest of fair and balanced criticism, I wanted to first address what positives I took from the Big Mouth. Some in terms of social commentary, others in more general storytelling elements. Spoiler alert: there wasn’t much.

First things first, I appreciated that the opening credits not only acknowledged but depicted menstruation, showing period blood. Menarche is an important moment for most girls in terms of physical development and her relationship to her body. (Some nonbinary people and trans men also menstruate, but for simplicity’s sake, I’m just focusing on cis women.) Menstruation is a monthly process that will last for decades, the complexity embedded in the frustrated grumblings about bleeding, contrasted against the sighs of relief when the body does its thing. Honestly one of the show’s immediate failings in terms of depicting the awkwardness of puberty is not bringing up menstruation and its various symptoms more often. There is a period episode in season one, but menstruation covers many experiences, evolving like sexuality. Because puberty is not just about hormones and an adolescent’s newfound horniness. (But that is a whole other, well-articulated rant.)

In addition, Ali’s first episode — aptly titled “Rankings” — centers around the kids ranking their classmates’ “hotness”, first by private handwritten lists and then via a phone app that broadcasts everyone’s desires to the entire student body. The rankings and people’s preferences drive wedges between friends and couples, as well as pushes one of the girls to lash at Ali. Everyone roils in their elevated insecurities, lonely and resentful. The episode ends with the standard life lesson about appearances not being the end all be all; the show even acknowledges this format when one of the girls declares that she and her friends will “learn [their] lesson later”. It should also be noted that the lists started in the first place because the boys bond over objectifying their classmates, the girls later retaliating with their own.

In my opinion, this episode addressed some interesting and pertinent themes related to technology, beauty culture, and socialization. The kids’ anxieties about being wanted were one of the few genuine situations that reminded me of my school days. And adolescence angst has only become more complex and inescapable over the past decade thanks to the rise of social media. Journalist Nancy Jo Sales researched girls’ relationship to social media and when asked about its effects on them, especially in the context of plastic surgery, she said, “This technology is unprecedented. […] It’s beyond interactive—interactive actually sounds like a 20th-century term for the Internet. It’s immersive. You’re inside your phone.” And we are inside our phones, crafting online personas, posting the fifth or sixth version of a selfie. Drafts of pictures to frame our faces just right.

I recently read a 2013 article about selfies and how they helped teenage girls, encouraging girls to take pride in themselves and to put themselves first. That enjoying one’s body wasn’t shameful or vain. The difference in culture then versus now stood out to me — diet tea ads and Jameela Jamil’s activism flashed through my mind. I am thankful that I did not grow up in the Instagram-influencer hellscape that shaped the late 2010s.

I liked the ‘Bad Blood’ cover in the season finale. The acoustic duet underscored the ending scene as series leads Nick and Andrew parted ways, the music acknowledging the heartbreak in losing a friend. The song choice also spotlights Kina Grannis and CLARA, two indie musicians who are Asian-American.

Between the three episodes that I watched, maybe two jokes landed for me. And one was a dick joke so it wasn’t just my hypothetical delicate sensibilities getting in the way. All of these positive elements, from a social and storytelling standpoint, are overshadowed by Big Mouth’s comedic style. It’s a relentless wave of stereotyping and shaming, and the show people obscure this through shock humor, aggressive swearing, and a general meanness to the show, desensitizing viewers, especially those who have accepted this diet for three seasons.

The Bones are Bad:

I was so… tired watching Big Mouth. Its mean-spirited, flaccid attempt at ‘comedy’ ranged from your standard fat jokes to a quick line that connected the Holocaust to objectifying young girls. (Yes, the show really made a joke about wanting to be on the boys’ list being like wanting to be on Schindler’s list, a list that saved over a thousand lives.) To spare my sanity, I only watched “Rankings” more than once, leaving the other Ali-related episodes to a one-time viewing. So while I will reference later episodes, most of my commentary focuses on the former.

The shock factor starts off in the opening scene and just gains momentum from there. While the boys throw a mock bachelor party for one of their friends, they mention how the only Asian-American, Charles Lu, barely speaks more than one word. Characters comment on his silence throughout the episode, the writing a reflection of a cinematic legacy of quiet, stoic Asian men. It’s easy to miss this microaggression though because of the show’s obvious, obnoxious moments. For example, the first reference to Charles’s silence precedes the first ranking, the viewer not having time to process the full implication of what had just been said.

This opening scene then concludes with the hypersexual Jay declaring that he ordered a stripper, only to be disappointed when a child dancer arrives. It’s all played off for laughs, protagonist Nick expressing his horror as Jay retorts, “Well, what do you want, some saggy-*ss 20-year-old?” Later in the episode, Jay comes out as bisexual. So the insatiable bisexual character is the one who hires an eight-year-old girl as a stripper, eschewing adult women. The writers connected queer male sexuality with pedophilia.

Some critics applauded Jay’s bisexuality for its visibility and as part of his character arc, but they fell into the age-old pit of any representation being good representation. When the character comes out, he does so on a live school broadcast, declaring, “I jack down to girls and boys. […] [E]verybody can start adjusting your lists now, because I wanna f*ck everyone.” His hypersexuality and indiscriminate desires reinforce the stereotype of the depraved bisexual. It’s an age-old trope, one that permeates media and in real life: variations of insatiability, indecisiveness; a cheater. These traits align with a history of Western stories queer coding villains like the duplicitious bisexual. Jay’s lack of romantic feelings for those on his list also dehumanizes a bisexual person’s capacity for love, because of this sexual maniac.

Sure… split attraction is a thing. I even discussed the difference between conjunctive and disjunctive bisexuality in my Carnival Row article. There is nothing wrong with hypersexuality, nor should anyone be shamed for having only a physical multisexuality. A person does not have to take politics into bed. That being said, this depiction of bisexuality, particularly of women, has dire ripple effects. It contributes to the intersections of biphobia and misogyny, the cultural message that bisexual women always ‘want it’. Almost half of bisexual women in this country have survived rape, almost three-quarters have survived “sexual violence other than rape” (p. 1). Bisexual men also have alarming statistics (though not as high), especially when compared to gay and straight men.

Though I will admit that Big Mouth handled classmates reacting to Jay’s coming out well, highlighting how people, particularly boys, dismiss male bisexuality. The news reporter for the broadcast, an openly gay boy himself, dismisses Jay’s sexuality as a ‘rest stop’ before reaching ‘Gay Town’. (But I did find the gay character’s design uncomfortable, as his coiffed hair and dangling wrists reminded me of stereotyped newspaper cartoons of gay men from the early twentieth century, as seen in George Chauncey’s Gay New York.) Jay’s friends are unnerved; they’re only interested in Ali’s sexuality because they fetishize her multisexuality. Small moments of genuine communication and human nature like those, however, cannot hold up against the show’s comedic style.

In a scene parallel to the opening, the girls attend a bachelorette party, commiserating as baby misandrists, furious at the dehumanizing rankings. In psychology, there is emotional empathy and cognitive empathy. The former means a person feels what another person is going through, while the latter is understanding without sympathy, the kind of psychological intelligence seen in sociopaths. Throughout watching this show, I experienced only cognitive empathy. Nothing about this scene of all teenaged girls resonated with me. The sexuality is so overblown and vulgarized like a Comedy Central trainwreck, no stumbling or awkwardness, which the show people compounded by having adults voice adolescent characters without any alterations to their sound. There’s literally a twisted ‘pin the tail on the donkey’ game with Lenny Kravitz’s penis and a blank crotch. The most sexually aggressive character, Lola, tried to hire a stripper. To be honest, I wouldn’t have been surprised if the bachelorette party had devolved into a ‘sexy’ pillow fight, but thankfully the writers didn’t go that far.

Big Mouth is anti-boy, but it’s not pro-girl. Similarly, it doesn’t valorize a straight, cis boy’s sexuality as characters comment negatively on thoughts of objectification. But Big Mouth doesn’t present any beauty or give time for processing queerness. For example, Ali reveals her list at the bachelorette party, and she includes Lola, a character whose body size generates regular, subtle comments from herself and from others. Though all the girls are incredulous at Ali’s interest, she explains her attraction: “[T]here’s just something about her. She’s like a sexy refrigerator, and I wanna know what’s inside.” And when she comforts Jay and commends him for coming out, she reveals why she had left her old school. She had told her best friend about her crush, and in response, the friend called Ali a “lesbo” and got the school to shun her. Jay responds by making a pass at Ali, framed in sexual and scatological terms: “Look, I’m pretty good at reading people, and I think what you’re saying is you wanna squeeze my dong so hard that I sh*t myself.” You can’t present the complexities of sexuality if you distract and denigrate moments of vulnerability, refusing to allow empathy to develop between characters. It’s a hate-filled show that could not convince me of any of its depicted friendships.

In regards to fat jokes, the show generally targets Lola, though it’s easy to miss them since the audience does not see her react negatively to these comments. The writers make her complicit in her own dehumanization. The more egregious example, in my opinion, appears towards the beginning of 3×10, ‘Disclosure the Movie: the Musical!’. Mr. Lizer, a teacher-turned-director, uses Lola’s full name when he announces her role in the school musical, revealing to the audience that her middle name is ‘Ugfuglio’. She specifies that she chose it as her confirmation name because ‘Ugfulgio’ is the “patron saint of sausage and peppers”. To be clear, this joke would be offensive no matter which character said it, but the writers package it insidiously, by having Lola present this information neutrally. Later in this episode, Mr. Lizer sexually harasses her, manipulating her into giving him foot massages. Him referring to her by her full name catches Lola by surprise; predators utilize this disarming technique to groom their targets, regardless of age. The writers turned a grooming technique into a fat joke, uttered by the target herself.

In a 2017 review of the first season, Sam Quattro summarized my thoughts on the series as a whole:

It reeks of mid 2000s adult animation in terms of its no holds barred, gross-out brand of comedy. Comedy is subjective of course, but this show brings absolutely nothing new to the table that I haven’t already endured except for being able to get away with talking genitals playing basketball on my computer screen.

These elements — racist implications, hypersexual stereotyping of queer people, and fat jokes — appear throughout the scene that introduces Ali and generated so much controversy. They undermine her status as an openly pansexual character, creating a platform for biphobic and transphobic rhetoric. Ultimately, Big Mouth reflects a straight understanding of multisexuality, and though Andrew Goldberg apologized, the fact that three seasons in, the show still uses this comedy indicates that writers won’t change.

Ali as a Fetish:

From a design standpoint, Ali’s character set off red flags, her ripped stockings and generally shabby chic outfit too mature for a middle schooler. Her clothes stood out compared to the other girls, who wore variations of dresses and jeans and T-shirts. As a viewer, I was a little uncomfortable. Her appearance straddled the line between child and adult, her facial design less awkward than her classmates’ which is, again, compounded by having an adult voice actress. There will always be a classmate who dresses differently from her peers, sometimes more maturely and edgier, but it still does not read well because of all the stereotypes encoded into her. With her swearing, hipster skirt and blouse, and her bird-finger earrings, she looked like an exaggeration of a manga-hipster fetish character. This intersects with her queerness and her race.

As I discussed in my Carnival Row piece, due to the on-paper similarity between bisexuality and pansexuality, bisexual stereotypes bleed into pansexual media and conceptions. For example, Annalise Keating from How To Get Away With Murder falls into the sociopathic, insatiable bisexual trope, yet the writers consider her pansexual. The sexualities share fluidity and history, making them hard to distinguish unless the characters or creators detail the attraction style. Pansexuality also has the burden of being relatively new to the public and to pop culture. If bisexual people struggle with accusations of going through a ‘phase’, then pansexual people struggle with that on top of not having a history visible to the monosexual world and the claim that pansexuality was created on the Internet by people wanting to appropriate oppression. (They share this problem with asexual people.)

After listing off some general attributes, Ali distinguishes herself from her classmates’ sexualities, introducing herself with a haughty air: “[N]ot to make all you normies shit your Old Navy undies, but I am pansexual. […] [B]isexuality is so binary.” The dialogue feeds into this panphobic belief that pansexual people only choose that label to feed a superiority complex, one rooted in pseudomoralism, embodying the social justice warrior archetype spewed by Internet-savvy trolls. That pansexuality was only created as an identity to distance multisexual people from the stigmatized label of ‘bisexuality’. Part of that stigma now relates to the perception that bisexuality is binary, straight creators ignoring decades of self-determination.

The show people get her character wrong solely on the fact that she wears nothing related to the pan flag. None of her scenes include pansexual colors to make up for this lack of a pride flag or pin. And Big Mouth knows about pride flags since Jay’s coming out scene includes the bi pride color scheme. If a person is comfortable enough to announce their sexuality to a group of strangers, they are very likely to use recognizable symbols to express that. Which Ali does not. As her classmates process her announcement, Ali ‘explains’ to them the two multisexualities and how gender identity works. She says, “Pansexual means I’m into boys, girls, and everyone in between. […] [M]y sexual preference isn’t limited by gender identity,” and later she describes how she can be attracted to trans people during their transition. Such a statement reinforces the toxic idea that trans people aren’t true men and women until they transition. While relegating mid-transition binary trans people to a third gender, it ignores nonbinary identities as a distinct category. She makes no reference to pronouns or nonbinary people. Big Mouth also has no depictions of non-cis characters in the episode or any episode that features Ali except for Queer Eye’s guest appearance in 3×10. Of the team, Jonathan Van Ness is nonbinary, though that part of his identity never comes up and he has no connection to her character. This lack of representation undermines the show’s discussion of sexuality, reflecting it as a cheap shot at ‘wokeness’.

This introductory scene isn’t even funny. Ali compares sexualities to preferences for tacos and burritos in one of the most forced metaphors I’ve seen. (Lola exclaims, “I’m f*cking hungry now,” another cheap shot about a fat girl’s appetite.) Ali leans in close to one of the white boys, aggressively saying, “And honey, [I could be into] anything else on the f*cking menu.” That line is so… horrible. As I mentioned earlier, the hypersexualization of bisexual women contributes to their high rates of sexual violence. In my research, I couldn’t find statistics specifically on pansexuality and violence, and though it’s potentially problematic to use biophobic violence to discuss panphobia, it reveals an oversight in modern surveying data. Bisexuality and pansexuality share stereotypes, so the intersections of bigotry would probably reveal similar results. This is especially true as pansexuality’s relative newness means that many people who use or have used the bi label would adopt the other or use both. (Janelle Monáe and Bella Thorne are examples of queer women who initially identified as bi before discovering pansexuality.)

Ali’s wording echoes that of Anything That Moves (ATM), a bisexual journal. ATM debuted in 1990, and its name was a reclamation of power: “Our choice to use this title for the magazine has been nothing less than controversial. That we would choose to redefine the stereotype that “bisexuals will f*ck anything that moves,” to suit our own purposes has created myriad reactions.” The writers do not present Ali’s preferences as reclamation. Granted, the character is a middle schooler and still young in her self-discovery and self-construction. But still. It’s clear that the writers didn’t do their research. The bit of dialogue worsens when contextualized within the whole episode. Devin is one of the more popular girls in their school, and as the rankings take over the school, she grows more agitated, particularly towards Ali, because her classmates stop prioritizing her. Her resentment culminates in her forcibly kissing Ali because she thought Ali “was pansexual”, with the implication being that Ali would be up for anything all the time. The character retorts that her sexuality isn’t blanket consent, but with the show’s fast-paced, unempathetic structure, the assault may not as well matter. This scene happens so quickly and never comes up again — no consequences and no acknowledgment. It surprised me that no critics mentioned this interaction in their review of Big Mouth’s representation. And we need to talk about these depictions of sexual assault and queerness, because again, we have an epidemic of sexual violence against multisexual women. Sexual violence is bad in general, don’t get me wrong. But our institutions need to address the specific issues that affect bi women and to research how these issues relate to and hurt pan women.

In terms of racist implications, it gets worse because Ali is of Asian descent, and Western media tends to hypersexualize Asian women, portraying them as sexually available and submissive. This is rooted in American imperialism across Asia, such as its annexation of the Philippines. Sunny Woan described this phenomenon in 2008, calling it “white sexual imperialism”. She describes it as, “[T]his potent combination of imperialist thought, racial inequality, and sexual inequality that perpetuate violence against Asian women by White men,” (p. 287). We see elements of this with one of the boys lusting over her “oversized funky glasses” and “smooth, porcelain skin”. It generates an image of an exotic, doll-like person. Again, other characters fetishizing her would not be a problem if the narration not only showed it but addressed it and her feelings on it.

These descriptions also reminded me of the ‘Cool Girl’ monologue from Gone Girl. In that infamous monologue, protagonist Amy reflects on how women mold themselves to appease men: “She likes what he likes. So evidently, he’s a vinyl hipster who loves fetish manga.” The actress that represented this type of ‘Cool Girl’ was Asian-American and wore large glasses. By choosing an Asian-American actress, Gone Girl alluded to what Woan refers to as the “Asian fetish syndrome” often seen in white men. In Big Mouth’s case, the character design does not read as intentional commentary but rather a byproduct of the mostly white, male, straight TV people not checking themselves.

In episode 3×10, Ali bristles at her musical character being named “Hot Asian with Asian Boobs” and points out the musical’s insensitivity towards her race. These are two lines are dialogue, and the issue never arises again, nor does Mr. Lizer’s insensitivity to other girls of color. His mistreatment of Lola is addressed by the episode’s end but not his racism. And it’s very specific, because he names the Latina character “Senorita Cleaning Lady”, thus singling out Ali’s background character for objectification.

There exists an invisibility with both of her identities, as well as a hypervisibility, and the writers do not reconcile that tension or even address it. If this socially-aware character knows about gender fluidity and the objectification of her race, it wouldn’t be a stretch for her to mention how those two things together to impact her. In Closer to Home: Bisexuality and Feminism, Paula C. Rust writes, “What is missing in her identity, of course, is not the recognition of any particular experience, but rather a recognition of the holism of her experience,” (p. 294). The characters fetishizing and antagonizing her cannot be interpreted as just reactions to her queerness or her race but as reactions whose traits amplify one another. She functions as a tool for the white, straight characters to process their biases. And the show people had an opportunity to explore her side of things. The aforementioned conversation between her and Jay about coming out would have been the perfect opportunity for further exploration of her character. Or, if the writers wanted to focus more on Jay, who is a main character, they could have used that scene to further explore his feelings about bisexuality and visibility. Overall, the show ignores Ali’s characterization in terms of backstory (family life, possible relationship to spirituality), which feeds into the writers ignoring her identity as an Asian-American and how it relates to her queerness, using her as a prop for different social messages.


GLAAD is a queer media watchdog, and in October 2016 it released the tenth edition of its media reference guide. ‘Pansexuality’ never appears, ‘pansexual’ only once as part of a section titled “covering the bisexual community” (p. 27). Both sexualities deserve more representation, and though representation doesn’t need to and can’t be perfect, creators like those at Big Mouth can do better. They have the time and resources to do so. And these representations would preferably not turn two forgotten subcultures against each other. It’s the bi and pan way — not having to pick a side.

Images courtesy of Netflix and 20th Century Fox

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